Rob Kutner is one of the very talented writers from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, bringing the funny every night. In addition to writing for one of the hottest writing teams on television today, he’s also into viral vids and writing excellent apocalyptic tomes.
This wonderful author and writer agreed to sit down with us a bit and share some interesting insights into writing for the ‘Daily Show’, his memories of Election night, and some insight on his book Apocalypse How: Turn the End-Times into the Best of Times!.
Also, I’d like to give a huge hat tip to MsInterpreted, who was a massive help getting these questions together. It’s all about teamwork here at No Fact Zone, and I could not do it without my fellow Completists.
Read the interview after the break!
NFZ: It’s often been said that while “Stephen Colbert” plays a character on ‘The Colbert Report’, Jon Stewart essentially plays himself on ‘The Daily Show’. Do you find this to be accurate? Does that affect how you write (i.e., do you think it’s easier or harder to write for a “character”)? How? Does the same hold true for correspondent pieces? Field pieces?
Kutner: I think that’s fair to say. Jon puts a premium on the show’s voice being as close to a gut reaction (namely, his) as possible, and in fact many jokes that air are things he said spontaneously when we were hashing out the story in a meeting. As a comedy writer, unless you created or host the show, you are always writing in someone else’s voice – I used to write for Dennis Miller, and politics aside, it is a *very* different style of writing and joke-telling! As for the correspondent and field pieces, those are a bit more elusive, since they’re trying to capture some sort of “spirit” or “worldview” of the show and therefore there’s more trial and error bringing those to air. We try to reserve Mondays and Wednesdays for trial, Tuesdays and Thursdays for error.
NFZ: It’s also often been said that the show is about making people laugh, not about informing anyone about news. Accepting that your first goal is to entertain, do you feel any pressure to “inform” (even as a secondary or tertiary side effect)?
Kutner: The only pressure we feel along those lines is to make sure our facts are straight, so that we’re not misinforming in the factual, “setup” part of our jokes. As far as informing, we actually don’t want to have to do too much beyond what our audience knows, because then we waste all that precious, precious inter-commercial airtime on explanation.
NFZ: Going back to the correspondent pieces, do each of the writers pick certain correspondents/contributors to write for and focus solely on them, or do people take topics, regardless of which person ultimately delivers the lines? (Maybe more importantly, how do they assign the topics?)
Kutner: No one has a beat or particular correspondent. Every day there are new assignments, and whoever is available (because they’re not already working on something else) volunteers for them. As far as which correspondents talk about which topics, there’s occasionally a correlation – for example, Aasif Mandvi on topics Middle Eastern, John Oliver on European, Rob Riggle on ass-kicking – but there again, it usually comes down to availability.
NFZ: Is it different writing for correspondents with improv vs. standup backgrounds?
Kutner: Almost all our folks have improv backgrounds (except for Jason Jones, whose background is in French Medieval Illumination). The correspondent green-screen or desk dialogues (as we call them, “chats”) are tightly scripted, so it makes less of a difference. But in the field pieces, some stories require more pre-prepared material from us (one-liners, funny questions, games to play with interview subjects), and some feature interview subjects so crazy and verbose, they should get a writing credit for that night’s show.
NFZ: I’ve heard that you guys had ZERO material prepared in the event of a John McCain victory for the Election Night special; is that true?
Kutner: Not only is that not true, we also had entirely separate shows prepared in the event of a Ralph Nader or Bob Barr victory.
NFZ: What is one of the more vivid recollections you have from the Election night special?
Kutner: It’s a few minutes after 11. The Colbert writers have occupied our writers’ lounge and are stinking drunk on Crystal Head Vodka (Google it!). The show’s supposed to end, but we’d heard CNN was about to call it for Obama. So one of the Executive Producers made the decision to stall it just a little longer. He signaled to Jon and Stephen at the desk, giving them the thumbs up, but also telling the audience to hold it off. Then, Jon made the announcement – for the first time ever, delivering a piece of real news.
NFZ: Do you have a favorite recurring segment? Is there one you particularly enjoy writing vs. watching?
Kutner: I’m a fan of “Back in Black,” because it’s about trends and themes, instead of being tethered to the day’s news. But it’s harder to write in Lewis’s very specific voice of rage than you might think! Whoever’s writing for him tries to get in character by loosening their tie and punching a fist through the wall.
NFZ: How much is actually written for field pieces? How much do you try to write for segments containing those Adam Chodikoff clip montages (how much do you want the clips to speak for themselves)?
Kutner: Field pieces are, as I mentioned, prepared with a lot of written material for the correspondents to draw from if they need to. Also, if the footage comes back a little lacking, we come in and make up funny charts, punch up the VOs, sometimes create entirely new jokes and points of view out of the footage we have. For the montage pieces, a lot of those do speak for themselves. However, you always want a good hard joke coming out of the last soundbyte, and you also need to make sure there’s a strong written throughline argument that unites them all. Otherwise, it’s just like “The Daily Show Presents: We Own Editing Equipment!”
NFZ: You’ve done a lot of smaller projects off to the side (Jewno comes to mind) – what appeals to you about those? How does writing for those differ from what you do for TDS? Those have a fairly obvious Jewish element in them; are there other areas that you feel you want to delve more deeply into than what you can do on TDS?
Kutner: Writing for The Daily Show is a great job, but as I’ve alluded to, you are ultimately writing in someone else’s voice and as part of a huge, Borg-like collective. As you’ve noted in Six Degrees, a bunch of us go off and do our own projects as a way to both express what we want and have full creative control. You mentioned my video Jewno – that was actually a promo for a live show I do every year on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which always stars one or more TDS actors. Last year, I had Aasif Mandvi playing Donald Trump and John McCain. He’s a great mimic. And the year before, Stephen was kind enough to do a pre-taped video I showed at the performance, where “in character” he attacks the hero of the Purim story and upholds its villain. It was fun to combine my Jewish interests and the type of writing I do for work.
NFZ: Who are some of your literary influences behind Apocalypse How? What were some of your inspirations behind the concept of an apocalyptic survival manual?
Kutner: Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold was a good one, as was Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man Book One Deluxe Edition and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. In terms of movies, On the Beach and Damnation Alley were tops. I think my inspiration came from growing up as a Cold War kid (though not a member of the band) terrified of The Day After, and my Daily Show-cultivated impulse to turn anxiety into irony.
NFZ: The thing that caught my eye with Apocalypse How is the fact that there are so many insane illustrations.What inspired you to construct a book that is just as driven by graphics as it is by the written content?
Kutner: I actually had no idea how extensive and beautiful the artwork (by Running Press’ in-house designer Josh McDonnell) would be. I did construct the book to have a visual, heavily laid-out format, inspired in part by America: The Book and the fact that I wanted people to read as little as possible. But when I first saw the galleys, there was a huge dent in the floor from where my jaw hit it.
NFZ: Of all of the really twisted bits of advice you give in the book, what would you consider to be the most bizarre?
Kutner: Boy, that’s like choosing which of your children is the freakiest. Probably the one piece of advice you will not get in any other book written by the hand of man (even if the jury’s still out on what a million monkeys could produce) is the section on how to make yourself too thin to appeal to your man-hungry alien captors by reaching inside and stapling your own stomach. I’m still trying to figure out a pithy way to fit that onto my epitaph.